Steeple Chasing : End of an Era
Steeple chasing has had a chequered history in India. When introduced as a race it was to prove immensely popular with planters and cavalry regiments of the army all over North India. In Calcutta, too, steeple chasing had its days, including holding of the Grand National. But it didn't quite attain the popularity of its counterpart in England. Here's the full story.
Hurdle racing appears to have started in India in 1859 at Jullundur, Meerut and Lucknow, while the first recorded Steeplechase was at Rawalpindi in 1865. From then on jumping grew rapidly at the upcountry meeting but was rather slower to catch on in Calcutta and Bombay. From the 1860's right up until 1938, when steeplechasing in India came to an end, Meerut, Lucknow, Umballa, Lahore, Dehra Dun, Cawnpore have been the centres where steeplechase has flourished. As also in the early days at all the Bihar meetings promoted by the indigo planters of Muzzafurpur, Champaran, Sonepur, Chapra and Mootahari. Steeplechasing has always tended to be more amateur than the Flat and this has meant that in India it has tended to flourish wherever there have been Cavalry Regiments or Planters. Up-country meetings in the 1860's, while following a general pattern from year to year, tended to be rather elastic as to Rules and to depend very much upon the local Regiment and the Hony. Secretary. Meetings were not advertised a long way in advance as in Calcutta and Bombay. Having sounded out the various stables and Regiments as to their likely movements and having allowed sufficient time for horses to get from the last place to hold a Meeting to his own centre, the Hony. Secretary would then advertise a Meeting in the `Pioneer' and any other suitable local paper besides putting the word round verbally. There was no racing Calendar in which to advertise; this did not come until 1888.
To revert to the 1860's, the average 3-day Meeting would perhaps have a couple of pony races, an Arab race and a maiden race, all on the Flat, and a maiden race, all on the Flat, and a Steeplechase and a Galloway Steeplechase on the first day. On the second day, a Seller, an open race for all horses and another for all galloways, an Arab race and a Steeplechase for Arabs and countrybreds. The third day would be handicaps for "Winners" and "Losers" and various forms of consolation races. The Steeplechases would probably have Rs. 500/- to Rs. 750/- added and the more important Flat races Rs. 300/- to Rs. 500/- with small races of Rs. 100/- to 200/-. The Steeplechase Course would be Specially built for the Meetings in the same way that Calcutta Paperchase Courses were built and would consist of mud walls, banks, post and rails, hurdles and ditches.
In 1895 the first Indian Grand National was run at Tollygunge. The C.T.C. had taken over the Course from the Ballygunge Steeplechase association in 1888 and during the intervening seven years had done a great deal to improve the Course, Stands and general amenities. A pony steeplechase Course within the main Course, but with less severe fences, had been built and also a 61/2 furlong Flat Course. At this time, two days racing were held each year during the first week in January and always, if possible, on New year's Day. These two days were sandwiched in with the main Calcutta Meeting at Christmas. From now until 1915, when the Course closed and Steeplechasing was moved to the Maidan Course, the Indian Grand National on January 1st at Tollygunge was to be one of the highlights of the Calcutta Racing season. The first Indian Grand National was, in fact, not run on New Year's Day but on December 31st 1895. It was a Terms race with penalties and allowances and was run over 3 miles. The stakes were Rs. 5,000/- of which the second got Rs. 1,000/- and the third Rs. 500/-. It was won by the Maharaja of Patiala's Prince Imperial, ridden by J.D. Scott.
The Maharaja of Patiala who had been introduced into racing when in partnership with Sir William Beresford a few years previously, was now racing in a very big way and enjoyed considerable success. Two Viceroy's Cups, the Cooch behar Cup, the Merchants Plate and innumerable other races were won by him about this time. He also won the second Indian Grand National that the name was changed from "ballygunge Steeplechases" to "Tollygunge Steeplechases", which seems logical. New year's Day at the Tollygunge Steeplechases always seems to have been a great occasion and much enjoyed. Attendances of 5000 and more used to be recorded and the impression is gained that it made a pleasant break and a day in the country, during the more formal and serious atmosphere of the Calcutta Christmas Meeting on the Maidan. It would have been quite an expedition for everyone out to tollygunge in the 1890's-Traps, Buggies, Brakes, and Landaus for some and the humble ekha and ticcah gharry for others. A few years later, the first breath of mechanisation creeps into the Minutes. The Stewards had some matter in connection with the stands at Tollygunge which they wished to discuss on the spot. It is minuted that they will "meet at the Club House (in Theatre Road) at 7.30 a.m. when Mr. Deakin (one of the Stewards) has kindly consented to drive the Stewards in his motor. Sandwiches and refreshments will, however, be despatched by other conveyance". This must have been one of the early motor cars in India and the trip quite an adventure.
While in Calcutta, King George V and Queen Mary had also visited the Steeplechase Course at Tollygunge. There had been some talk in 1911 of building a new Stand there but this had not been done. There are indications about this time that doubts were beginning to be expressed about the continuance of a separate Steeplechase Course with its Pony Course and short flat Course. In order to bring it up to the standard of the Calcutta Course, in its new wave of prosperity, Tollygunge was going to need a lot of money spending on it.
Moreover, there were legal doubts about the validity of some of the leases of the various plots that made up the Course. It was decided not to maintain the Pony Course. In 1912/13 it was decided to frame a couple of Steeplechases in the Calcutta Programme and the Steeplechase Course was built. In 1914/15, the Tollygunge programme was framed as usual but with the outbreak of War in August 1914, the opportunity was taken in October to abandon Tollygunge and to include the races already framed for Tollygunge in the Calcutta Programme.
These of course included the Indian Grand National which was therefore run for the first time on the maidan course in January 1915. It was to continue there until its transfer to Lahore after the cessation of Steeplechasing in Calcutta at the end of the 1928/29 Season. The Stewards kept their options open and the Course and Stands were kept on a maintenance basis and it was not until 1917 that the Stand was eventually sold by tender for demolition. There would have been a few old timers who probably shook their heads about the decision. The old Course had come a long way since Mr. Brancker "discovered" it in 1871 and the Ballygunge Steeplechase Association evolved from that sporting, paperchasing chummery in Ballygunge.
As has been described, Steeplechasing started at Tollygunge in 1871, the R.C.T.C. took over the Course in 1888 and started the Indian Grand National in 1895. The Course was Closed and the race and other Steeplechases were moved to Calcutta in 1915. All went until about 1927 when it become apparent that there was going to be a shortage of both horses and jockeys. There were insufficient steeplechases to encourage an owner to import a Steeplechase horse as such. They tended to be failed flat horses or promoted hurdlers. Steeplechasing in India had always followed the Army. The Army was still mounted and not mechanised, the Army to some extent was able to generate additional runners. The Stewards did the obvious thing and transferred Steeplechasing up-country and the Indian Grand national from Calcutta to Lahore. The last National run in Calcutta was on New Year's Day 1929 when it was won by Mr. Ernest Hartley's Kibuck, who was subsequently sent to England and ran in Grakle's National of 1931, besides winning a number of smaller races. Mr. Hartley was a Steward from 1926-28 and was the father of Lady Olivier (Vivien Leigh, the actress). from 1929-1938, the Indian Grand National was run at Lahore and was the feature of the Boxing Day programme. But in 1939 came the war and this, coupled with mechanization, was the end of Steeplechasing in India. The first recorded Steeplechase in India was in 1865 at Rawalpindi and so it had a life of just three quarters of a century.